Effectively Challenging Prejudice-Related Incidents

When responding to a prejudice-related incident, the aim should be to secure the best possible outcome for everyone involved. Therefore, interventions should be restorative and seek to create attitudinal and behavioural change, with the goal of preventing future incidents from occurring.

All staff need to be provided with training and guidance to support them to effectively challenge incidents when they occur. Often support staff may not receive the same training as teachers, but lunchtime supervisors and people in the playground may be more likely to witness an incident. 

Providing scripts to challenge common issues, such as the use of 'that's so gay' can give staff the confidence and the skills to be able to respond efffectively to incidents and create a school setting where prejudice is consistently challenged.  

Below are some key prinicples of how prejudice-related incidents can be effectively challenged in school: 

Challenge the discriminatory behaviour, rather than the person

Labelling someone as a racist or sexist has the potential to inflame the situation and is not an effective approach. It is important that the focus is on the behaviour that has been displayed and that all involved know that it is this behaviour which is unacceptable and needs to change. 

Make sure that you explain why the behaviour is unacceptable

If the perpetrator is just told that the behaviour is wrong and/or punished for it without understanding the reason why, it can just breed a sense of injustice and a feeling of not being understood.

Engage with the underlying anxieties that the perpetrator may have which are being expressed through this unacceptable behaviour

Perpetrators of prejudice-related incidents may have low self-esteem and/or concerns about loss of identity and belonging. They may have picked up misinformation from the media, or from family and peers. Let the perpetrator know that you understand why they might be feeling this way and try to address their underlying issues. Just dismissing their concerns or giving intellectual arguments as to why they are wrong has the potential to create bitterness, a feeling that they have not been listened to and to reinforce their prejudice and fear.

Use reasoning and enquiry questions to get the perpetrator to question their attitude/behaviour

Examples of reasoning questions:

  • What are your reasons for saying that?
  • Do you have any evidence?
  • Why do you think that is the case?
  • How do you know?

Examples of enquiry questions:

  • Can you give an example/counter example?
  • If you say that, does it follow that…?
  • Is that always that case or only sometimes?
  • What are the exceptions? Are you saying exactly what you were saying before?

Speak with witnesses as well as the perpetrator: It is important that all witnesses understand the reasons why the behaviour was unacceptable, so they understand why the perpetrator is being sanctioned and don't believe that the perpetrator has been treated unfairly. Perpetrators of prejudice-related incidents are often acting as a group or believe that they are acting on behalf of, and have the support of, a group, so it is important not to just focus on those obviously directly involved in the incident and further work to educate and create understanding should involve witnesses and the wider school community where possible.

Put educational programmes in place to deal with the underlying attitudes: Education rather than punishment is the most effective way of creating behavioural change and reducing the number of prejudice-related incidents in the school. Sometimes teachers can feel trepidation about undertaking this work for fear of opening a can of worms or introducing ideas of prejudice where they did not previously exist. However, young people are usually bursting with questions about these issues and want to have an opportunity to speak about diversity and inclusion. If these questions are left unanswered, young people often come up with their own, inaccurate conclusions and can harbour prejudicial attitudes affecting themselves and others around them.

It is important that the challenge doesn't end there, but that all incidents are recorded and followed up. This should just form one part of your school's procedures for recognising and responding to prejudice-related incidents.